Who says grammar can’t be fun in a third-grade classroom? And who says young writers can’t understand complex concepts like dependent and independent clauses? Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been laughing a lot with third-graders who are learning about sentence construction.
I started with introducing the class to the definitions of simple, compound, and complex sentences.
Honestly, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the definitions. I didn’t expect the definitions to make a lot of sense to the students at that point in time. My goal was for them to have the language to begin to speak about sentences.
Then, I gave the students two sentences that they could combine.
- I am excited to work with you.
- We are learning about sentence structures.
I gave students two sets of conjunctions:
Equipped with conjunctions, students took on the challenge of combining these simple sentences, and we had some fun and insightful conversations about the different nuances a single word could add to the combination. Some examples included:
- I am excited to work with you, AND we are learning about sentence structures.
- I am excited to work with you, BUT we are learning about sentence structures.
- I am excited to work with you because we are learning about sentence structures.
- I am excited to work with you, ALTHOUGH we are learning about sentence structures.
- Because we are learning about sentence structures, I am excited to work with you.
- We are learning about sentence structures, but I am excited to work with you.
The differences in these combinations led to their awareness of comma placement and gave them a lot of practice with using the language of sentence structure. Together, we created a chart they could use as a guide.
I gave them other simple sentences to combine with the challenge that they use a variety of clauses and try to explain how they can change the meaning of the words by changing the order and the conjunction. Engagement was high, energy was high, and the reflections were full of students explaining their use of conjunctions and decisions to begin their sentence with a dependent or independent clause.
And then, in the following lesson, I took an idea from the pages of Patterns of Power by Jeff Anderson and Whitney LaRocca, and I gave students sentences to use as mentors. Their task was to write their own sentence using the same structure of the one I gave to them.
We began with simple sentences that contained conventional patterns I want this group of students to learn. For example, one of the sentences I used was: I like chocolate, vanilla, and peppermint stick ice cream. Some of the students wanted to know if I really did like peppermint stick ice cream. “Yes,” I said. “I love peppermint stick ice cream.” This interaction led to a conversation of where to get the best peppermint stick ice cream. I share this as an aside because there are so many ways and opportunities to learn about and celebrate our own and others’ identities.
Once students understood the concept of following my structure, I increased the complexity: When I teach you about sentence structures, you become better writers. Because students weren’t working as hard on content, they could concentrate on the use of commas, capitalization, and end punctuation, skills that sometimes are non-existent in their authentic writing.
Our favorite moment so far (and I’m expecting more) was when I gave them the following sentence.
If you make me laugh, I might do a happy dance.
“Are you really going to do a happy dance?” a student wanted to know.
“Yes,” I said. “And then some.”
They worked for a while, and then one student came up to me and tapped my shoulder. “Can we use potty talk?” he whispered.
I chose my words carefully. “Yes,” I said, “but you might want to keep my sense of humor in your mind. You don’t know if I think potty talk is funny.” I smiled at him, and I spoke more quietly. “I sometimes do.”
Needless to say, the sentences devolved into all sorts of poop, and the students dissolved into all sorts of giggles.
- If my dad steps in poop, he lets out a loud yell. (Understandable,” I said.)
- If my baby brother poops, my mom has to change the diaper because it smells really bad. (“Look at you, using two dependent clauses in one sentence,” I said. “Can you name them?”)
- If I eat a lot, I poop. (This one made me laugh, to be honest.)
These sentences lend themselves to some good reviews about nouns and verbs if I want to stay with the poop theme. In the meantime, who knew I’d be using poop, sentence structures, and a variety of clauses in the same sentence in front of a room of third-graders?